The wave-like wall at Gorseddau slate quarry was running through my mind. I needed to go back and see if it was as I remembered. On a bitter March afternoon I set off along the old tramway that curves in from Cwm Pennant to the north.
A hundred yards to my left, on a windy shelf of moor at the 330-metre contour, were barely discernible remains of Treforys, a three-street village built to house the quarry workmen. It had 36 cottages according to the 1861 census, each of them with a quarter-acre plot. Today sedge spears through the acid soil and spikes of bog asphodel – the unfailing index to unproductive land – gleam brilliant orange when the sun dips below mist and cloud to illuminate this austere landscape.
By 1871 the village was deserted, its consumptive and dispirited inhabitants dispersed. The grandiose Gorseddau scheme was over. “Everything that could facilitate the works was produced, nothing being wanting but the slate vein,” noted an 1871 report on the company’s liquidation in the local paper. The misjudgment of these venture capitalists amazes me. Even the layman can see at a glance that Gorseddau rock does not cleave in the way to satisfy a soaring mid-Victorian demand for roof-slates.
But the scheme left enduring monuments: the quarry itself; the wave-wall; the marvellous, ingenious, romanesque-windowed Ynysypandy slate mill, where gravity fed the blocks down to the cutting floor. After the quarry closed, before it was de-roofed in 1906, the mill was used for eisteddfodau, and for nonconformist meetings prior to the building of Saron Chapel nearby in the mid-1880s. The latter is now a sumptuous converted holiday-let.
As for Ynysypandy’s “slate cathedral”, RH Tawney would have smiled at the fate of this symbol of religion and the decline of capitalism. Somehow I prefer the stilled wave of rock at the head of the cwm: its huge blocks and exquisite curve designed to protect the tramway from rocks falling from spoil-heaps above; to shore up the line of communication against destruction by the scheme’s own waste. I can’t imagine a contemporary version in plastic having quite the same resonant solidity and beauty.